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Let’s suppose that a friend, relative, acquaintance, whatever, has died and they are/were strict of followers Judaism and you are invited to “sit Shiva” in order to pay your respects. Here’s what you can expect with apologies in advance to any noders of the Jewish persuasion who might think this kinda information redundant and/or observe different rituals depending on their degree of faith.

Let’s also begin by acknowledging that the Jewish faith specifically identifies seven immediate family members of the deceased who are expected to observe the mourning period beginning with Shiva. They are the deceased’s mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband and or wife

Immediate Burial

Naturally, before one “sits Shiva”, someone has had to have died. In the Jewish faith, it is tradition for the burial to take place as soon as possible, even on the same day of the death, but no more than two nights after the death. It is considered a sign of disrespect to keep the body from being buried as soon as possible. The logic behind this might be construed as the soul has returned to God but the body is left to linger in the land of the living. Since Jews do not have a wake and the body is interred as soon as possible, flowers and such other trappings associated with wakes do not apply. Also, traditional Jewish funerals state that the deceased should be buried in wood coffins and that no preservation of the body is to occur. This practice is meant to ensure the quick passing of the soul into Heaven

Sitting Shiva

The word in Hebrew for seven is Shevah, the term ‘sitting Shiva” is meant to denote the seven days of mourning in which the family members, identified earlier, do not participate in the daily rituals associated with everyday life. It begins immediately after the funeral and is only interrupted by the Sabbath and other Holy days. During this time, they are not supposed to go to work or school. In a stricter sense, they are also not supposed to wear leather shoes, don make-up, use perfume, shave, get a haircut or bathe. There are also to be no “marital relations” (read sex) during this time

In traditional Judaism, the mourners are seated on stools or chairs that are of lower height than any other of the other furniture. The Rabbi’s have interpreted this to signify that the mourners should desire to be closer to the earth and consequently closer to their loved one. Any mirrors in the house are covered to discourage the mourners from becoming vain. Other customs such as walking barefoot and covering one’s head lie more in folklore than in religious requirements. Legend has it that these practices were associated with the survivor’s fear of ghosts of the deceased. In order to confuse the ghosts, the living family members tried to disguise themselves in order to prevent being recognized.

The first meal eaten by the mourners occurs upon their return from the cemetery. It usually consists of hard boiled eggs and is called “Seudat Havrach.”. The roundness of the eggs is meant portray life as a wheel in which we all pass from happiness to sadness and back to happiness.

Later in the afternoon or early in the evening on the day of the funeral, the first prayers, the Kaddish are said. The Kaddish is a prayer that is meant to sanctify God and a quorum of ten, called a minyan, is required to begin. The minyan usually includes family members or close friends of the family that usually arrive early in order to take part in this ritual of Shiva

During the next six days, friends and relatives continue to visit the mourners in order to provide them with a sense of caring and to enable the mourner to make a smoother transition back into everyday life. The friends and relatives usually bring food such as breads and snacks and other items of comfort to the mourners in order to relieve them of this responsibility. Closer friends and relatives often bring an entire meal on the night when Shiva is being observed

I’m not Jewish, should I go?

Well, I’m not Jewish either but since I had the advantage of growing up in New York City in a very culturally diverse neighborhood, I’ve had the occasion to visit families while they are sitting Shiva numerous times. My answer would be to follow your conscience however the act of visiting is appreciated by the mourners as a gesture of respect for the deceased and is always considered appropriate whether one is familiar with the customs or not. Usually the support provided to the mourner(s) is appreciated and accepted. With that being said…

Shalom!

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